Tuesday, January 23, 2007
baby i'm born to lose:
In advance of the State of the Union, I spent my day watching and writing about General Petraeus's confirmation hearing for the Prospect. Or at least that was part of my day. The part that's upset me was an unexpectedly bitter argument I had with a good friend and neoconservative Iraq supporter.

I confess I started the fight. The guy sent me some thoughts of his about Iraq, and I found them stunningly unworthy of his talents, and said so in a particularly nasty manner. We went back and forth, and soon enough I found myself being called an advocate of "retreat and defeat." I protested that this was a low blow. He said not at all: after all, I do in fact advocate retreating from Iraq and conceding defeat. I replied, look, at some point, you may find yourself unable to accept the idea that there's anything salvageable here. How would you like to be called that? He parried: Well, if I do, that's what I'll be. The implicit premise was that I'm unprepared to accept the implications of my own course of action.

And I think he had me there.

Many of you, I suspect, also think the better part of valor is in leaving Iraq. If you're like me, this is an agonizing thing, something that makes you heartsick. Awful things will happen after America leaves. Even if it's apparent that it will be worse if we stay, there's no masking this. Being called a retreat-and-defeatist is a way of suggesting that I revel in this conclusion instead of coming to it reluctantly. And yet I suppose that's what I am. This, I suppose, is why I got so pissed at Jason Zengerle for writing that withdrawal advocates were underemphasizing the consequences. Perhaps it's a defense mechanism; or perhaps I've let my position in this whole thing embitter me to the point that I'm even embittered at myself, and will find myself snapping at my friends. I try to avoid mistakes -- but in doing so, commit other ones.

UPDATE: That Petraeus piece is here. Sam n' Ann gave it the awesome hed, "Surgin' General."
--Spencer Ackerman
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Blogger David Bander | 11:05 PM

Dude, you're overthinking this. Your neocon friend supported and continues to support the biggest foreign policy fuckup in all of American history. You are right to want American troops to withdraw, and he's wrong because he doesn't want that. The degree of agonizing that you engage in is irrelevant.

Let's get the fuck out of Iraq.
Blogger David Bander | 11:07 PM

Problem: The right thing to do is leave Iraq, but it will intesify the civil war in Baghdad. America will get the blame, will be forced to live with the "shame" and "loss of prestige" that results from a "defeat."

Solution: The time has come to be honest about our intentions. There must be an announcement of when we are leaving, a "timetable," if you will. But make it more than just us, say that the Coalition of the Willing has defeated Saddam, but is unable to maintain order, and is both a catalyst and cause of violence now.
Then go multilateral. Request help from the UN, the security council, the general assembly, the Arab League, even SEATO and Mercosur. Tell them all you understand that America's actions were a mistake, and we'd like to make things right, but don't feel we have enough credibility to lead. But we are willing to help the rest of the world make it right.
Then listen for the crickets.
But at least then, we can have some other people to blame for the inevitable sectarian violence.

Also, please note that your friend said that a redeployment is 'conceding defeat.' Well, just what is victory? It is obvious that there will be no peaceful, law-abiding multicultural democracy flowering in Iraq. So that's out. The Shi'ite government just wants us to give 'em guns and get out of the way. No amount of "training" will suddenly create honest police and army units not staffed by militia members.
So I feel there is no concession, just an acceptance that there is nothing constructive we can really do in Iraq, and they need some time without the foreign infidel occupier blowing things up (and getting blown up) to figure out how to reorder their society after our democratic revolution.
All our original goals in Iraq were defeated a long time ago (find WMD, create happy democracy). Leaving is accepting this fact.
Because you are too hot for tnr, I'll let you come up with the witty 3 word slogan to express the position of your friend, which is to keep putting Americans into the meatgrinder and toss our tax dollars into a sinkhole of corruption, incompetence, and death.
Just ask him how much more American blood must spill so he can avoid some pyschic injury. How many more scenes like the one described by Wilfred Owen (see http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Dulce.html)
Blogger Agorabum | 2:03 AM

Well, one should really distinguish between 'advocates of defeat', and 'defeatists'. The former want the US to lose - the position of, say, Al Qaeda. The latter merely have a character flaw - cowardice - which predisposes them to see the situation as hopeless for the US cause.

And I'd say that, whichever of these insults was intended, it was below the belt. It is even disingenious to characterise your position as advocating 'conceding defeat'. 'Victory' is a nice word as long as noone asks you to define what it might conceivably consist in at this point. Victory was declared long ago insofar with regard to the aim of deposing Saddam, and defeat was conceded long ago with regard to the aim of 'producing a model democracy in the middle east'.

Its bad enough that surge-advocates like your friend are reduced to slinging insults, its depressing that you think this is a legitimate move in a straightfoward policy debate.
Blogger Otto Trygve Bruun | 3:12 AM

Gotta say, Spencer...as someone whose trajectory on the matter follows yours to a large extent (once a supporter of the war, now not), I have to agree with your anguish on this. A friend of mine put it in an all-too-depressing way, "we might have to accept a smaller Rwanda now in order to prevent a larger one later." I think this was a little off-base, but no doubt there will be massacres on a greater scale when we leave. But that does not mean we should send more troops there to essentially do al-Sadr's bidding.

On another note, I'm an avid reader of both Prospect and TNR; keep up the good work.
Blogger Marc | 6:07 AM

Calling people who accept that the Iraq war is a failure advocates of "Defeat and retreat" is simply a way to make a virtue out of denial. The disaster that will come when we leave Iraq (and we will leave it in chaos, its just a question of when) is not the fault of people who can see that the war is a failure, it is the fault of the people who brought the invasion about to begin with. They don't want to deal with thier mess, so they try to put it on people who point their failures out.
Blogger Vermin Jones | 6:18 AM

Jason's still a friend?

Okay, that was a little unfair. As neocons go, he seems to be almost a human being. But seriously, dude, all these calls for civility aside, there's a dark day coming where a friendhips between liberals and neocons are going to be about as sustainable as friendships between confederates and yankees were during the civil war.
Blogger Larry | 6:25 AM

The defeat occurred when the U.S. invaded Iraq. To paraphrase Mikhail Gorbachev, the only real question is whether we leave now, or stay until we have complely disgraced ourselves militarily.
Blogger serial catowner | 7:03 AM

Is your friend between age 17 and 42? Does your friend have any serious medical condition? Has your friend been convicted of a felony or any crime with a fine greater than $250? Is your friend an openly practicing homosexual? If the answer to the first question is yes and the rest are no, this kid better have served. Personally, I think all of the war supporters owe a tour to all of us who have been over there, but for some reason there is no shame in only being brave with other people's lives.
Blogger joedokes | 7:36 AM

"Advocates of defeat" or "advocates of victory" are like "advocates of happiness" or "advocates of profit". That is, completely deluded, absurd, and intellectually vacuous.

You don't get to victory, happiness, or profit by advocating them. They are achieved by different means. You might advocate different means and criticise others.

And if you find yourself unhappy, making a loss, or defeated, "advocating" the opposite doesn't change any of those things.

The main political divide today is between those who believe in the existence of objective reality and the armed postmodernists.
Blogger Alex | 8:55 AM

An admirably generous spirit, Spencer, but your object is mistaken. As I've come to rejoinder in this debate (I've had it a few times with my own pro-war friends), yes, it's the case that American withdrawal is going to be the preamble for a lot of terrible things.

It doesn't follow that we thereby have a reason not to withdraw. Because our continued presence would be justified only if staying another six months, two years, five years would actually undo the conditions for those terrible things (although it would then be really, really justified).

The sad fact is that our presence won't---we've been there for how many years after removing Hussein? Every six months we hear that these are the six months that count, and at the end of the six things aren't better and in fact are worse. Our continued presence has only seen the insurgency get worse and casualties accelerate. Yeah, it'll be a tinderbox if we leave by July 2007. It'll be a tinderbox if we leave by 2013. And it's frickin' infuriating to be accused of missing the material consequences of my preferred course of action by people who are artificially muting one side of the cost-benefit calculation.

It may be an unusual situation where the costs of an action are both (a) delayed until the future and (b) nevertheless already "sunk" costs. But that's what we've got. This war was broken a long time ago, and people---especially the war's cheerleaders---need to recognize that we don't have the ability to fix it.
Blogger Jack Roy | 11:34 AM

I think the terms of this debate are wrong. They choice is not between a troubled (but ultimately virtuous) neoconservative project of "liberal democratic revolution" versus "defeat and retreat."

I understand that respectable liberals like Mr. Ackerman are "heartsick" over the possible consequences of withdrawal from Iraq. They are heartsick for good reason, there seems to be no end in sight to the carnage in Iraq.

But they should understand that the U.S. has neither the power nor the moral capital to save Iraq from its postcolonial ethnic strife. The U.S. occupation of that unhappy country has been violent and authoritarian - not, as some seem to believe, some benevolent peace keeping mission gone bad.

Neoconservatives and liberal hawks arrogantly believe that American policy-makers (and not the people of Iraq) will be architects of Iraq's future. Like text-book imperialists, they confuse their arrogance for a sense of "responsibility."
Blogger The Special | 2:18 PM

I think the terms of this debate are wrong. They choice is not between a troubled (but ultimately virtuous) neoconservative project of "liberal democratic revolution" versus "defeat and retreat."

I understand that respectable liberals like Mr. Ackerman are "heartsick" over the possible consequences of withdrawal from Iraq. They are heartsick for good reason, there seems to be no end in sight to the carnage in Iraq.

But they should understand that the U.S. has neither the power nor the moral capital to save Iraq from its postcolonial ethnic strife. The U.S. occupation of that unhappy country has been violent and authoritarian - not, as some seem to believe, some benevolent peace keeping mission gone bad.

Neoconservatives and liberal hawks arrogantly believe that American policy-makers (and not the people of Iraq) will be architects of Iraq's future. Like text-book imperialists, they confuse their arrogance for a sense of "responsibility."
Blogger The Special | 2:18 PM

I think the terms of this debate are wrong. They choice is not between a troubled (but ultimately virtuous) neoconservative project of "liberal democratic revolution" versus "defeat and retreat."

I understand that respectable liberals like Mr. Ackerman are "heartsick" over the possible consequences of withdrawal from Iraq. They are heartsick for good reason, there seems to be no end in sight to the carnage in Iraq.

But they should understand that the U.S. has neither the power nor the moral capital to save Iraq from its postcolonial ethnic strife. The U.S. occupation of that unhappy country has been violent and authoritarian - not, as some seem to believe, some benevolent peace keeping mission gone bad.

Neoconservatives and liberal hawks arrogantly believe that American policy-makers (and not the people of Iraq) will be architects of Iraq's future. Like text-book imperialists, they confuse their arrogance for a sense of "responsibility."
Blogger The Special | 2:18 PM

I think the terms of this debate are wrong. They choice is not between a troubled (but ultimately virtuous) neoconservative project of "liberal democratic revolution" versus "defeat and retreat."

I understand that respectable liberals like Mr. Ackerman are "heartsick" over the possible consequences of withdrawal from Iraq. They are heartsick for good reason, there seems to be no end in sight to the carnage in Iraq.

But they should understand that the U.S. has neither the power nor the moral capital to save Iraq from its postcolonial ethnic strife. The U.S. occupation of that unhappy country has been violent and authoritarian - not, as some seem to believe, some benevolent peace keeping mission gone bad.

Neoconservatives and liberal hawks arrogantly believe that American policy-makers (and not the people of Iraq) will be architects of Iraq's future. Like text-book imperialists, they confuse their arrogance for a sense of "responsibility."
Blogger The Special | 2:21 PM

"The implicit premise was that I'm unprepared to accept the implications of my own course of action."

Ask your friend if he is prepared to accept the consequences of the course he advocates (I presume that is to continue to send Americans to fight).

If he says he is, and he passes "joedokes" test, then he damned sure better have volunteered to go himself.
Blogger Bob Gaines | 2:34 PM

My first response was a bit ticked off and unfair. Not so much that I'm not including it below, but perhaps I'll try to offer a calmer response first.

Bush lost this war. The advocates of the war, the neo-cons and the supporters of the president hurt the United States; they have hurt America and they are continuing to do us damage. People who are trying to extricate us from this war are trying to mitigate this damage and repair as best they can the harm that has been done. A defeat has already taken place; we are now on the road to recovery.

***

I've always loved this quotation from Jeanette Rankin, the first woman in Congress: "You can no more win a war than win an earthquake."

Rankin was a serious pacifist -- the only person to vote against both world wars. Obviously, she was not always right on policy, but I think that quote gives a useful insight.

At this point, the best imaginable conclusion to the Iraq War (I'm not even saying the best possible, merely the best imaginable) will make the decision to go to war a terrible tragedy. Even if everybody gets a pony, there are going to be a lot fewer people to ride them.

Descending from Cloud Cuckoo Land to realm of what might happen, and what the United States can meaningfully do, our choices are truly bad, and calling hope a plan still won't make it so.

There's a useful debate to be held over the terms of US disengagement from our colonial arrangement with the government of Iraq -- how fast, how much, how much credibility can we salvage, how much can we do to attenuate our moral culpability, etc., etc. But that has to be a conversation about the facts of the world, and not just hollering that people who face reality are defeatists.
Blogger Zed | 8:22 PM

in almost all situations in which anyone might be inclined to use the phrase "cut and run", "cut and run" is almost always the correct decision.
Blogger Bruschetta Boy | 1:55 AM